Why Cycling Isn't Always Good for Your Health

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While stationary cardio machines have their place, most biking enthusiasts will tell you that nothing beats the unpredictable territory of the open air. But can the health benefits of outdoor cycling be trumped by the risks?

Columbia University is looking to find out. According to National Geographic, a team of researchers are gearing up for an intensive study that will aim to assess the health effects of air pollution on riders in metropolitan areas. Volunteers will be outfitted with air quality monitors and GPS trackers that will provide minute-by-minute assessments of pollution concentrations; a blood pressure monitor and biometric shirt will measure changes in their heart and lung activity as they bike in the city.

Health experts already know that fine particulate matter (which includes things like black carbon and nitrogen oxide) emitted by vehicle tailpipes is a serious health matter: Long-term exposure ups the risk of heart and lung disease. Those exposures can be amplified when performing a strenuous activity like biking or jogging near traffic.

The available data on those risks indicates a typical concentration of pollution isn’t going to be harmful unless the subjects spend hours at a time inhaling particulates. But Columbia’s researchers believe that exposure is dynamic and can vary widely depending on the city, vehicle congestion, and location.

While the study is still in its pilot phase, the eventual hope is that extrapolated data could help inform apps that can advise cyclists on what areas to avoid on a given day. In the meantime, cyclists can reduce their chances of exposure by keeping their distance: A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health [PDF] study indicated that dedicated bike paths—as opposed to lanes hugging the road—that are insulated by vegetation can reduce the amount of particulates and keep cyclists from having to stop at traffic lights, where they can get a hefty dose from idling cars nearby; riders who don't have that option might benefit from avoiding larger diesel vehicles and peak traffic hours.